While I only had 2 short days in Belgrade, L, my couchsurfing host, made it one of my favourite cities in Europe. 2 years younger than I was, he was a human rights law student who was about to embark on his masters education. I had taken a night bus from Mostar, where it was impossible to sleep at all. Thankfully, L lived in the middle of the city center, which was near the bus station. When I called him at 6am, he picked up the phone immediately and waited for me just outside his apartment. Couchsurfing really brings out the best in humanity. He lived in the basement of a rather wealthy looking building, and I was surprised to learn that rent was EUR100 a month. Talk about cheap. Anyhow, we somehow chatted for over 2 hours about everything and anything, before I decided to be nice and let him get back to sleep while I explored the city.
It was quite interesting to visit Serbia after Bosnia, as these two countries were fighting each other not too long ago. Serbia too had the shell of a bombed-out building, but I could sense that it was a lot less Muslim, and recovering more quickly from the war. The architecture was starkly different from Bosnia, a lot more European, with orthodox churches and wider boulevards. L told me that when he was young, his family sheltered some families escaping the war for a few years, despite knowing that they would never be repaid in monetary terms. This altruistic spirit is almost unheard of in most societies, and I could never imagine my parents agreeing to such an arrangement. It was precisely because of the war that he wanted to be a human rights lawyer, to fight for those whose voices could not be heard. I really admired how passionate he was about his future field of study, and it made me question what I was doing in finance. He was really quite an enterprising guy, trying to earn money on the side by converting his place into an Airbnb and staying with a friend on most days. I guess I got lucky!
Some of the highlights of Belgrade for me were:
- The architecture. I loved walking around the city despite it being so cold, as the buildings were so beautiful and varied. The huge Saint Sava was the first orthodox church I had ever been to, and it reminded me a little of a Buddhist temple with all the incense. Venturing on a little further, I reached Republic Square, which would not have been out of place in Paris or Barcelona. Before I knew it, I was at the fortress, a huge park overlooking the Danube river, which was sadly, covered by the winter fog.
- The graffiti, which was a big thing in Belgrade, I soon realised. It definitely was more than your standard scribbling on walls, the murals, if I could call them so, covered entire building surfaces, and they were really clever. If I lived in Belgrade, I’d be planning my running routes around these graffiti spots as my motivation to work out everyday.
- Zemun, a neighbourhood on the other side of town, which was a short bus ride away. L told me many of his friends lived there, and I wanted to see a bit of Belgrade outside of the old town. There was a very laid back vibe in Zemun, with small cafes and bakeries up steep roads, many little orthodox churches with beautiful stain glass windows and murals on their ceilings, and colourful houses that seemed to be stuck in time. Once again, at the top of a hill, there was supposedly an awesome view but I was there at the wrong time of the year.
- L. Actually, he was the best part of Belgrade for me. I met up with L for dinner, and he brought me to try this awesome burger/kebab thing which I have no idea what it is called. We took it back to his place, and though it was as big as my face, I inhaled it in 5 minutes. He was a little taken aback by my appetite I think. That aside, he was the most generous person I’ve ever met, given how he is a student who isn’t earning much. He refused to let me pay for dinner, and brought me out to try their rakija, which was similar to Turkish raki. That night, we watched some random movie while hiding under a thick blanket, and it felt like a home away from home. Easily one of my favourite couchsurfing experiences.
I left Belgrade early the next morning to catch the train to Romania, and while walking past all the major sites at 5ish am, them still lighted up, I had no idea why but I kind of fell in love with the city. It wasn’t extremely unique but the atmosphere just made me feel happy.